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So, You Want to Study Music at a Conservatory?

Conservatories demand a special kind of musicianship and focus

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's

The decision to attend a conservatory has its genesis in your heart. "Does music make you live?" questions Allison Ball, Dean of Enrollment Services at the New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston. If not, the university setting makes more sense because you can explore other peripheries of a music career.

"Expectations are different in a conservatory type of environment," counsels Ball. Students may have the talent and the drive, but to sustain a career in performance you must have a total devotion and myopic view about what gives you joy in life, she states.

The conservatory education is strenuous and extremely competitive so unless you're academically top-notch, a fabulous musician, and have a good idea of what you want to achieve, you're far better off going to a university. "You have to have a competitive nature because the field is so competitive," states Ball, alluding to the rivalry for spots in an orchestra, the opportunity to be heard in music competitions, and the jockeying for recording contracts. "There are thousands of people who aspire to that level, so it's very difficult for the faint of heart," she admits. "When you hit the streets of the world, they are not very kind to people in the arts."

What to look for in a conservatory

The choice of a private teacher and ensemble experience are the two defining criteria for conservatory students. Often, it's the teacher, not the conservatory, that determines the best choice. Ball stresses that prospective students must research the faculty carefully to determine who is teaching and if faculty members with whom they will want to study are in residence.

Learning your craft is not the only benefit that a talented faculty offers. At a conservatory, you are in contact with a high-level network of peers and alumni who are already established in the world of music. You will be able to network and get to know the movers and shakers in your field. For this reason, Ball suggests making sure faculty members who interest you are still active and not retired.

Fine-tuning the relationship with a teacher

On the other hand, is your teacher so involved that he or she is rarely on campus? If that's the case and you're heavily into performance, Ball asks if you will be able to learn on your own, or do you need weekly interaction and guidance. "As a musician, your primary relationship is with a private studio teacher," she explains. You have to find out the instructor's style of teaching, backgrounds, professional networks, and the chemistry between you and the teacher. "It's such an intimate relationship since this person is guiding and mentoring you," she states. You must base your decision about a conservatory on the teacher rather than on the reputation and name of the school.

Scheduling a lesson with prospective teachers is the only way to determine the fit. Violist Ethan Pernela, who attends the New England Conservatory of Music, visited one well-known conservatory, but he and his private teacher didn't click and he decided against going there.

The New England Conservatory was not composition student Christopher Trapani's only choice. He wanted to keep his choices open and did so until the last minute. He'd already considered the New England Conservatory, among others. It wasn't until he picked up a new pamphlet the Conservatory had just published and learned that a new teacher had been added to the faculty that he made a final decision to attend the Conservatory.

Making music together

Opportunity to perform is the other foundation for choosing one conservatory over another. "Is there a full orchestra, or do they bring in ringers from the community to fill seats?" queries Ball. "Is there an opera company or resident musical ensemble, or is it only an extracurricular activity. How many concerts are performed in the year, and what is their repertoire? What are the conservatory's expectations of student performances?"

While conservatory students primarily concentrate on music, some do want to take liberal arts courses above and beyond what is prescribed for any bachelor's degree. Applicants might want to find out what a conservatory make available outside of music. Conservatories are sensitive to this need and many offer cross registration with universities in their areas. Some even allow joint-degree programs.

Can you play the part at a conservatory?

Auditions are the deciding factor, Ball states emphatically. But having said that, she indicates that technical excellence and overall musicianship must be accompanied by inner drive, whether to be a performer, composer, or teacher.

The best conservatory programs provide major ensemble experience, says Ball, thus a student's ability to work with other musicians is scrutinized due to its importance in a career. Ball looks for what applicants have done in their spare time as a clue. Some students have had an abundance of ensemble opportunities, while others from small towns don't have youth orchestras. So she questions what applicants did with what they had. Has music consumed a large portion of their time and in what context?

Unlike liberal arts institutions, conservatories have strict quota systems that limit how many students are accepted. In any given year conservatory admissions seeks performers and ensemble players with definite abilities among applicants from the undergraduate to doctoral level. For instance, Ball points out that if you play the saxophone, and they only need two players that year, the Conservatory will pick the best two from the applicant pool.

2004 College Advisor of New England